After Ari finishes telling Tal everything about the bandits and Radhri’s rescue, Tal sits in silence, thinking. The four sit on large pillows around a small fire. Their shadows dance on the dark walls behind them.
“My father can be rash sometimes. He’s not very good at first impressions and tends to over step his bounds.” Her dark eyes look at Ari. “But he seems to like you. He wouldn’t have brought your group here if he didn’t.”
“What? He would’ve abandoned us in the Redlands and taken everything for himself?” Crofton asks.
“We may be showing you kindness now, but don’t forget,” she smirks at Crofton, “we are raiders. Bandits fear us for a reason.”
The tent flaps open and Radhri walks in. He plops down between Ari and Tal and crosses his legs, placing his hands on his knees. “Gahndri has, reluctantly, been able to find more food for the feast tonight. Though if we have any more unexpected guests he may throw himself into the fire.”
“What’s the feast for?” Kemp asks.
Radhri smiles at Tal, but she only looks away from him. “It’s the beginning of a great celebration.”
Drums beat loudly and voices echo the sound enthusiastically. The pylon is engulfed in flames and all around it smaller fires are built at different heights. A long strip of coals also stretches from one fire to the next.
Bodies dance around the fires, a mass of motion comprised of men, women, children, and anyone else who wishes to join in. The drums crescendo into a cacophony of sound and then suddenly cease.
Radhri stands, holding his hands above his head. He speaks in a different language, his voice booming over the fires. His eyes take in every face upturned to him. He waves his hands and at one point pounds his chest with a fist. He raises his voice and gives a resounding call into the night. The crowd raises their voices to his and soon the cheers bounce from the walls of the cliffs behind them and back.
Waiting until the crowd silences again, Radhri motions his arm to the group seated to his left. “To our honored guests here at our celebration, welcome. I beg to my people, my family treat these guests as one of us and show them the dignity we know to be our life’s blood.” The crowd voices approval and he waits for them to silence again. “Now, let the true celebration begin!”
The drums explode back to life and bodies leap into the air. Gatherings encircle the flames around the pylon and the drums slow their pace, though only slightly.
Radhri sits. To his left, after the space reserved for Tal, sits Ari, Crofton, Kemp, and those from the caravan. Vesna wears a bandage on her side and her head. The healers were able to determine little damage had been done and she was free to walk around on her own, though Vico stays by her side at all times.
The seating area is placed before the line of coals and the two largest flames. As the drums change their tempo, men begin to make the cross over the coals. As each man passes they try to one up each other. One stands for a moment at the center to show his bravery. Another does a cartwheel, sparks flying where his hands dig into the coals. Yet another sits on the coals before continuing.
At each one up, Ari and the rest of the group wince. Kemp and Crofton at one point both yell out in shock. Ari chooses to instead look away at the more gruesome choices, namely when one man picks up a blazing coal and places it on his tongue.
Cheering rises steadily as the last of the crossers approaches.
Tal steps up to the edge of the coal walk and faces her father. He watches with a guarded expression, choosing not to show favoritism. The drums slow as the crowd’s excitement grows.
Turning back to the red-hot coals, Tal holds her arms out to her sides. She places one foot on the coals and slowly moves forward. The drums pick up speed as she approaches the center. She stops in the middle and turns in a full circle. Then she lowers until her knees are barely touching the coals. She lowers her arms and places her hands on the ground.
The drums cut out until only one is playing. He slows his beat until it’s slow and controlled.
The muscles in Tal’s arms strain as she carefully places her weight on her hands. She raises her butt in the air and soon her feet lift off the ground and rise until they’re in the air over her. She pushes and does a perfect handstand, her arms straightening.
As she moves with slow grace, the single drummer matches her intensity with a low rumble as she moves. Once she reaches her full handstand the other drums give an impressed single beat.
Ari, Kemp, and Crofton watch in silent awe. Once Tal finishes her handstand they immediately applaud, leading a small cheer from the crowd.
The single drummer slows his beat again and Tal takes a deep breath. The crowd falls silent again and watches with anticipation.
Slightly adjusting her weight, Tal carefully places most onto her right arm and lifts her left arm. Her legs lean slightly to the right to counter balance and the drummers give another single beat. The crowd cheers again, whoops echoing against the cliff wall.
Tal lowers her left arm and her chest moves up and down as she breathes deeply. She bends her arms and pushes hard, throwing her legs forward to land upright. She finishes the walk across the coals and holds her hands up above her head in triumph.
The men, who crossed before her, surround her and congratulate her or speak quickly in awe. Ari can see black soot on Tal’s hands and feet and wonders if she even felt the scalding heat.
Radhri stands and everyone falls silent, even the drums. He scans the faces of the crowd and without a word, points to the largest of the flames, besides the burning pylon. Tal stares at her father and nods.
“He can’t mean…She doesn’t have to…” Crofton can barely speak. His eyes dart from the flame to Tal to Radhri back to the flame.
Tal approaches the flames and stands still. A second figure moves to the opposite side of the fire. It’s the man named Indra. He stares across the fire at Tal and the two circle the tall flames. The drums begin playing a strangely broken tempo. Sudden loud beats make the crowd jump, but all eyes remain locked on the two circling the flame.
The two suddenly change directions at different beats of the drum, but how they’re able to do it at the same time is a mystery to Ari. She leans forward, her attention entirely drawn to the sight.
The drums grow in tempo and soon the two are running around the fire, changing direction at the slightest provocation. The climax of the drums hits and becomes a simple drum roll. The crowd gets into it, stomping feet or beating their hands against their chests or with their voices.
Then every thing cuts out. All sound disappears and Tal and Indra stop on either side of the fire. They leap forward, both jumping high into the air over the flames. For a moment time seems to have stopped. The two, at the apex of the fire hang in mid air. From where Ari sits it looks as though they’re going to collide, but she knows deep down they won’t.
Turning her head to make a comment to Crofton and Kemp, Ari realizes the two are frozen and not just in awe, but truly frozen. She looks to Radhri on her other side and sees him in mid swallow of a drink. She glances back at Indra and Tal and her eyes lock onto the flames. The fire isn’t moving either.
Panic fills her. Is she having another vision? No, this feels different. She can’t tell why, but she knows this is something different.
As soon as she realizes what’s happening it ends. The sound of the crowd cheering snaps her back and she sees Indra and Tal are now standing on the opposite sides of the fire. They successfully made their jumps.
Both walk to stand before Radhri and the crowd watches intensely. Radhri stands and his eyes move between the two. A large smile grows on his face and he releases an uplifting yell. The crowd joins in as Indra and Tal bow their heads.
Music plays and the raiders explode into dance. Some leap over the smaller fires in celebration as others feast heartily. Children watch the strong men and women leaping through the air and copy the movements with great excitement.
Rhadri sits as Tal returns to her seat by his side. Indra joins a group to continue the dancing and performing further feats of agility.
Radhri turns to Ari. “You can breathe now.”
Releasing a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding throughout the display, Ari laughs nervously. “That was quite an ordeal.”
Leaning forward to see Tal, Crofton stares at her with a newfound respect. “How were you able to stay on those coals for so long? Especially while doing all…that?”
After swallowing a mouthful of meat, Tal shrugs her shoulder. “It’s not that hard if you don’t let fear control you.” She smiles and winks at Ari. “It doesn’t hurt to also have magic.”